Bill Murphy and His Quest for Space

by Brett Busang

<i>Brooklyn Brownstone, Night</i>, 1988, etchingIt was Canaletto who, in a subversive mood, supplied us with one of the first real panoramas, The Stonemason’s Yard (1730), and it holds up very well today, not only as a document of a vibrant quarter in one of the greatest ports in the world, but as a kind of subjective document, a view of one’s home. In the foreground the city begins to come to life. People are already about their business, but not in the numbers mid-morning will soon bring. A servant opens shutters, a single boatman has launched his gondola, artisans have begun to tap away at the uncut stone. Behind this understated movement is the city Canaletto made his money painting, a city of important structures, both commercial and ecclesiastic, blocked out in the light that most favors them, bringing out their recesses, sharpening their contours, emphasizing their majestic shapes and forms. What are panoramas—and why are certain artists drawn to them, and not to the intimate landscapes of the Dutch and, more famously, the Impressionists? The question could be answered in all sorts of ways. I would put it down to hunger: the hunger of the eye and mind for breadth, for inclusiveness, for everything.

Panoramas were very popular in nineteenth-century America, when ordinary people had no one to tell them about their still-exotic country except writers and diarists, or other ordinary people who had been to, or heard about, an American wilderness redolent of wonder and mystery. Before long, artists got the idea of making pictures that could travel; one’s fellow-countrymen could at long last partake of the natural wonders they were all missing back east. A panorama of the Mississippi, said to be a mile long, was hailed as a sort of man-made marvel when it appeared on the scene in mid-century, yet there is nothing of that mile-long canvas left today to tell us what was wowing the public in those years, as Donald Stoltenberg tells us in The Artist and the Built Environment (1980).

Today this hunger to see everything is alive in a series of paintings by artist and printmaker Bill Murphy (b. 1952), mostly set on Staten Island, where he has lived his entire life and knows as well as any man living. Murphy’s mentor, the printmaker John Noble (1913–83), was a man motivated by a similar hunger. Until the very end of his life, he made it his task to document an already vanished period—what he called “steam and sail”—in both lithographs and paintings that deserve a much wider following than with local aficionados and history buffs. As an older man, Noble leaped into the present, not only with powerful images of oil refineries going at full tilt, but with elongated views of these places—as if nothing else could possibly describe them. And in these lay the seeds, I believe, of Mr. Murphy’s present work.

Staten Island is a place where the eye can roam—particularly at its edges—across wastes, flats and streams the old Dutch named “kills.” These kills thread the island and drain into New York Bay. In the heyday of the shipping trade, the bay was filled with schooners, steamers, tankers—a great, almost unimaginable array of water-worthy stuff that now lurks beneath the shallows. Gaunt and ragged skeletons of these craft are revealed at low tide; they lie there in the flats, exposed to sunlight for hours at a time, until high tide comes in and washes over them. Someone like John Noble might have known how many there were at a given time. The number, of course, is not important. It’s the sense of all the embedded human history that appeals to Bill Murphy—that and the living water swirling around it, the flashing of sunlight on its moving ridges, a distant tanker, the spires and smokestacks of an old Jersey town holding out over a horizon line flat as the desert and straight as the road that gets you out to Fargo, North Dakota, from a one-grain-elevator town.

Bill Murphy has been painting this landscape for twenty-five years. Even in his first attempts, he seemed to want to stretch the picture plane out beyond the extent of his etching plate. In The Fresh Kills (1985), he takes us to the water from a reedy bank and looks beyond it, as if craning his neck to see something above a ledge. It can take an artist years and years to figure out what he really wants from an image, but this image tells us that Bill probably knew what he wanted all along. In this case, the idea went into storage, but gradually forced its way back out into the open air. Some years later, he made Mariner’s Harbor (1993), at 14-by-31 inches fairly large for an etching. In it are the ingredients he would re-introduce much later, and in different media: the elongated view, which is not officially panoramic; a skeletal wreck that suggests some ancient life-form ready to crawl ashore; a somewhat skewed perspective; a rat’s-nest of derricks and other dangling material coming up around a bend on the right. The hull of a tanker on the extreme left-hand side balances out the design while Meryonesque clouds brood over the scene. The etching is wonderfully dismal, irresistibly macabre. Murphy has been able to distill, in his first great effort, the creepiness of a now-abandoned place almost completely given over (or rather back) to nature. Reminiscent in feeling to the kind of still life that leaves nothing to chance, it is a memento mori—meditation on death in a place overtaken by an almost shrill abundance of vital signs. He returned to the panorama in his own backyard, with the peak of his white clapboard house commanding center stage, in My Backyard (1998), technically both painting and collage. Perhaps the collage released his energies in a way he could not anticipate. Bill’s son, Sam, is pushing a wheelbarrow. Perhaps this is Sam’s vision, a vision only his father could articulate.

Bill Murphy, <i>Mariner’s Harbor</i>, etching, 1993<br/>Courtesy of the artist
Bill’s Brooklyn Brownstone, Night (1988) is a spooky image of a row-house one might see anywhere from Cobble Hill to Crown Heights. For many people, Brooklyn is a kind of a mythic place, yet there are places in Brooklyn that are more mythic than others: the housing project where Ebbets Field once stood; the offices of the Brooklyn Eagle, where Walt Whitman toiled at a tiny desk; the Brooklyn Bridge itself, a technical marvel, to be sure, but also the means by which two great cities, Brooklyn and Manhattan, were united. Then there is the Gowanus Canal, an often fetid channel that winds its way through South Brooklyn on its way to the East River. Few people love the Gowanus Canal, but it haunts the imaginations of many of the people who have lived around it, left it and come back to it. It is an eyesore redeemed by the strange and enduring fascination artists and mob historians profess to have for it.

The Gowanus Canal is one of Brooklyn’s mythic places, a mythic place with a very physical existence. And it was there that Bill decided he would focus his hunger and make the biggest print of his entire life. Oh! Gowanus! (2002). At 9-by-35 inches, it shows the canal itself, a sort of concrete-reinforced Lethe, the spidery “F” train arching over Brooklyn, offering a subway rider truly breathtaking views of Manhattan punctuated by more quotidian views of the mother city, and Manhattan itself, with its despairing promises to those who will never leave Brooklyn. A single pedestrian walks underneath a low concrete bridge, and out of the picture. She clutches grocery-bags that chafe her hands. She pays no attention to the canal. She just wants to get home with her groceries and cook dinner. This mundane moment is essential to Bill’s conception; the small figure is, for me, a major note played so softly that it invites the listener to lean forward so as to miss nothing the music has to offer. Bill said of the work’s conception in his book, Nothing but a Burning Light (Drunken Monk Press, 2003): “My friend John Noble used to tell me ‘Don’t go to Europe, go to the Gowanus Canal!’ He was right. I was reminded of my mental notes to myself to return to the canal, because I had the feeling for years that there are lots of pictures there. Standing under the expressway, with vistas opening up towards the harbor and then towards the mysterious heart of Brooklyn, I felt so much life streaming around me that I wanted to include as much as I could.”

A companion watercolor, Oh! Brooklyn! (2003), is almost Romantic in the tension between the static architectural “gateway” in the left foreground and the all-night energies that lay behind it. Specks and pinholes of electric light play off velvety pools of darkness. A tranquil sunset cools out over the low South Brooklyn skyline. Razor-sharp diagonals lead the eye inexorably past the Gowanus Expressway and on into the night that is soon to arrive. Bill’s struggles with the image, described in his personal journal, almost evoke pity. “I don’t see—can’t see—a composition.” When to do it, day or night? And, predictably, what to leave out/what to put in: “There are so many great details, small things available to be used.…” He rejects more complicated formats as well: “I’m thinking three panels….” But affirmative notes begin to emerge over the six- to-eight-week period the picture takes: “I’m really digging into it right now.” Within a week or so, it’s done. At the very beginning, he stood at the site at dusk. Then and there, he said it “will make a beautiful thing.” Bill’s watercolors have something of the density of oil, while retaining a necessary transparency. The layering of the color, in which the lights are “painted around,” is mirrored in the etchings, whose lightest areas are supplied by the paper itself. But here the more modest scale of the print is left behind. This watercolor, measuring 18-by-86 inches, is therefore panoramic not only in approach and feeling, but in size as well.

Bill Murphy, <i>Oh! Brooklyn!</i>, 2003<br/> Courtesy of the artist
The culmination of Bill’s panoramic forays also brings him full-circle, back to his earliest imagery of Staten Island. Bill’s nervous and tortured musings on the subject show an artist who is still attempting something entirely new. In one journal entry, he can’t get the color. In another, he’s flat-out “disgusted.” Others show a dawning awareness of what the emerging picture will mean. The Last Boneyard (2004) is a culmination in another way, too. In his years away from these tidal flats, Bill seems to have mastered the science of painting from life. Bill’s hero Andrew Wyeth is a master of this very thing. In much of Wyeth’s work, a painstaking approach pays off in the end, with a sometimes wild, even desperate, spontaneity that seems to fuse all of the disparate elements together. In this painting, Bill has woven line and color together to make the same water-damaged hull that appears in Mariner’s Harbor. However, the water is choppier, and the tide seems to be closing in. In choosing to deal with the infrastructure of a still-industrial waterway, he underscores the human insult to land and water—a thing less apparent in some of his earlier work. In his search for the essential, Bill has found invisible, but deeply felt, connections that start with perception and end with something entirely different. Ultimately, The Last Boneyard is the most satisfying of all Bill’s panoramic creations but—as his journal entries tell us—was the most brutally frustrating to create.

When the painting is nearly finished, Bill talks about the “thought and payment underneath that watercolor that sits on the surface.” He thinks of Wyeth’s snow-covered hills when the color goes crazy on him; he complains of a boring, or “near perfect,” symmetry after studying the design and finding it too predictable; he takes walks and meditates on his childhood, the place where so much of his work started as a momentary vision, a remembered epiphany. Furthermore, he attempts to work on some of the rawest days of the new year, with the wind slamming in from the northeast on some days, and easier weather—but no light—on others. On those days when the wind has eased up, Staten Island’s hard and bright January does the rest. After some preliminary studies, however, much of the work proceeds indoors. There are visits to the site as the painting evolves. Finally, some breakthroughs: “BUT THEN…the most dramatic, intense light broke out—this light just like the yellow/orange in Noble’s paintings…it was an amazing Elegiac scene—one I won’t ever forget. A blessing—the fruit of the work of getting up and going out to paint in Mid Winter.” And, some days later, this: “…yesterday starting zeroing in, looked a lot at Wyeth and Hopper. Both, particularly Wyeth, are not ‘tight’ though accurate and believable. A sense of the real.” As it turns out, the zeroing-in was all he needed to do. The great thunderclap of activity begins, things are resolved as they arise, and he worries whether it’s “not good” even “tho’ the process is right.” And finally he can allow this admission: “I do feel I’m working back to the original inspiration.”

Like Edward Hopper before him, Bill wrestles gamely with the inevitable deterioration of an original idea, the inspiration which assumes lesser importance as technical problems are met head on and the picture evolves in its own way. He even admits that while the picture “won’t rival its talented older brother Oh! Brooklyn! It’s a good one anyway…truthful and necessary.”

In the work of all great artists, there is at least a germ of autobiography. Wyeth considers every patch of ground home to the imagination; every place he walks is drenched in memory, filtered back to him in a way a non-artist would only vaguely understand. There is much of that sense of a personal homeland in Bill Murphy’s Staten Island images and in his work in general. This series of panoramic views is yet another way of reaching out to this homeland, taking its measure and giving it back in a form that pays homage to it, yet is recognizably different than the thing itself. While an artist may wish to replicate reality, this reality is inevitably transformed as the imagination, which began the search, guides the pictorial struggle. In the end—to paraphrase Hopper—there is only you. And Bill Murphy is an artist who is always himself.  Bill Murphy, who studied at the School of Visual Arts and the Art Students League, is currently represented by the Old Print Shop in New York City.

American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2005, Volume 22, Number 1